Michael Posner, professor emeritus at University of Oregon who studies attention, says that our brains gets fatigued after working for long periods of time, “particularly if we have to concentrate intensely or deal with a repetitive task.” Taking a break may or may not help deal with stress during high-pressure times. What’s crucial is the type of break taken: According to The Wall Street Journal, taking a stroll in the park “could do wonders” while drinking lots of coffee will just be further depleting. Also, in other instances, not taking a break at all may be the best course, simply powering through can be “more effective than pausing.”
Recent research shows that taking a stroll through a natural setting can boost performance on “tasks calling for sustained focus.” “Taking in the sights and sounds of nature appears to be especially beneficial for our minds.” In fact, Dr. Marc Berman and fellow researchers at the University of Michigan found that “performance on memory and attention tests improved by 20 percent after study subjects paused for a walk through an arboretum. When these people were sent on a break to stroll down a busy street in town, no cognitive boost was detected.” (see an earlier post on Berman’s research).
Even just looking at photos of nature in a quiet room has a greater cognitive boost than walking down a busy urban street. “In a follow-up study, the researchers had participants take a break for 10 minutes in a quiet room to look at pictures of a nature scene or city street. Again, they found that cognitive performance improved after the nature break, even though it was only on paper. Although the boost wasn’t as great as when participants actually took the walk among the trees, it was more effective than the city walk, says Dr. Berman.”
You may actually not even have to enjoy the park, botanical garden, or arboretum to get the benefit. Dr. Berman said: “You don’t necessarily have to enjoy the walk to get the benefit. What you like is not necessarily going to be good for you.” For them, just looking at images of nature engages “our so-called involuntary attention, which comes into play when our minds are inadvertently drawn to something interesting that doesn’t require intense focus, like a pleasing picture or landscape feature. We can still talk and think while noticing the element.” In contrast, walking down a busy street is exhausting over long periods because we are on the look out for cars and bicyclists, and people bumping into us.
Important information for landscape architects working in dense urban areas: People also don’t have to live near a nature-rich environment to get some benefits. “A quieter city street with interesting natural elements to look at, such as containers of plants, could do the trick, too.” Berman and his researchers are still trying to figure out what kind of natural elements work best in terms of cognitive boosts. He is now at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto where he and his colleagues are also trying to find out whether nature can help people with anxiety or depression.
More and more exciting research is coming out on how nature can improve mood (see earlier post) or lower hospital rehabilitation times (see earlier post). Urban designers like Jan Gehl (see an interview) have long argued that landscape architecture educators and, really, those from all design professions, need to make courses on improving human health and well-being a central component of curricula. While therapeutic garden designers have long focused on these issues in the healthcare realm, perhaps some innovative landscape architecture programs will start adding required courses that cover all the research done by the Dr. Bermans of the world, which seem to be quickly zooming in on what forms of nature have the greatest health impact.
Public health, epidemiology, and medical programs would also do well to bring in landscape architects and other design professionals into research tracking the causes of epidemics like cancer, obesity, diabetes, depression, and nervous disorders, using positive and negative examples of urban landscapes as test-beds for research.
Image credit: Harvard University Arboretum / Photo Challenge. Pingsi